That's the situation today on the Staten Island Expressway, and the Tri-State Transportation Campaign's Michelle Ernst has written a scathing blog post about it. She calls it "same old same old," and points us back to a 2005 newsletter where she expressed concern that it could turn into a "bait-and-switch."
Here's a significant quote from that newsletter:
Further, a process by which a mass transit project is created but then turned into highway lanes begs questions of legality and future trust in the DOT’s intentions, or at least in the consequences of any action the agency takes to build special-use lanes. The DOT recently took over the Tappan Zee corridor project, which envisions construction of “high occupancy toll” lanes in Rockland County, another highway innovation untested in the region or NY State. Everyone involved in that project, and in other projects involving special use lanes, will have to ask how quickly highway agencies will roll over to political pressure to change the nature of those lanes if the DOT caves in on the Staten Island lanes.
Indeed. How's that going, then? Well, according to Tri-State's latest posts, the initial financing report says that the current price tag of $16 billion will probably be more like $23 billion after inflation and debt service. So far they've only figured out how to pay for $4 billion. The rest may be financed by "public-private partnerships," and we know to approach those with caution (PDF).
Significantly, the Financial Studies Report (PDF) does something that none of the previous Tappan Zee reports have done: separate out the costs of the various components. Up until now we've had to deal with the whole thing as a package, and accepting "BRT" has meant accepting the DOT's assumption that any replacements must widen the bridge to eight lanes and include two new "HO/T" lanes (which do not count as BRT). Now the tables on Page 3 of the study break down the various costs in a straightforward way. (I hope the staffer responsible doesn't get fired for such egregious transparency!)
The tables tell us that if we just want to rehab the bridge and use two of the seven lanes for BRT, plus build a full, separated BRT line from Suffern to Port Chester, it would only cost us $2.89 + $2.55 = $5.44 billion. Assuming that the inflation and debt service multiplier is linear, we're talking about $7.82 billion, which is roughly a third of what it would cost to build a commuter rail line from Suffern to Tarrytown, widen the bridge and add "climbing lanes" in West Nyack.
"But Cap'n!" you protest, "the studies show that millions of people will move to Rockland in the next ten minutes, and that they will all insist on driving their single-occupant Hummers back and forth across the bridge nonstop for the rest of their lives!"
Well, son, calm down. Remember that those studies were done before the recent economic collapse. Rockland is completely unsustainable in its present form. In this climate, people would have to be nuts to move to some car-dependent subdivision in Rockland. There will probably be huge growth around transit centers (Suffern, Nanuet and Spring Valley), and the rest of the county is going to be depopulated faster than you can say "Averill Harriman."
The people of New York have two options. We can prop up the Rockland sprawl for a few more years by mortgaging a new $23 billion ten-lane bridge to Lehman Brothers, or we can fix up the bridge we have and make do. Going along with this bridge just so that we can claim some "BRT!" victory that will be bait-and-switched out of existence a few years later is about as short-sighted as you can get.
I don't know why Tri-State staffer Steven Higashide is so bullish on the Tappan Zee reconstruction. Ernst seems to have a much healthier skepticism of the DOT's ways; I wish she could pass them on to Higashide.
Image: "Outline Cross Section at Main Span for Linear Park," page 7-20 of Alternatives Analysis Level 2 (PDF), by the Tappan Zee taskforce.